Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Rethinking Dreams

Dr. Mae Jemison–The first African-American woman to travel to space.

Few people rise every day hoping to land smack-dab in the middle of the pack. When we were kids, we dreamed about being astronauts, the elite few who get to fly literally above the crowds and gaze at the Earth below. We dreamed of being queens and presidents, world-renowned doctors curing the world’s ills. We even hoped to say or do something profound enough to achieve the elusive world peace Miss America contestants gushed about in impromptu speeches. We wanted to be what Will Smith joked about in an early scene in Men in Black: “The best of the best of the best, sir! With honors…”

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams–The first African-American cardiologist and the first person to perform a successful open heart surgery.

Many of us even had parents, other family members, and mentors who told us, “You can be whatever you want to be. You can do it. Your dreams will come true.” We headed to warmed cars full of promise and self-confidence. We knew that if things didn’t work out the way we wanted them to, we still had time to change them. We understood that temporary setbacks didn’t curtail forever ultimate potential and actualization. It took us until we were 30 to develop cynicism. And even then, it wasn’t the suppressive kind.

Every kid doesn’t have that, though. A lot of our babies wake up every day in a world hell bent on helping them fail. They travel throughout life knowing that the systems that tell them via test scores, poor educational opportunities, and neighborhoods rife with violence and economic oppression that they won’t amount to much must be telling the truth. Their dreams look little like the ones we had. Their self-images do not reflect the ones so many people helped us fashion. And this makes me sad.

I watch these children with dead eyes file into schools, knowing that they or someone they know won’t make it to graduation alive. They know that even if they do, the likelihood of going to a “good” college is low. They understand that the immediate need of having to eat today trumps the long-term goals of degree attainment tomorrow. When bullets pour from guns and babies are mowed down, the schools’ crisis specialists sit in libraries or counseling offices to help adults grieve, for the kids have seen this all too often. This pain is not new.

I hear their conversations. Their priority of survival leaves little room for dreaming. Every moment both inside and outside of the home can be a life or death situation. These babies are walking gravestones with tattoos of relatives, friends, and neighbors plastering their bodies: R.I.P. Juanita, R.I.P. Andre, R.I.P. Dad. Playing basketball at a local park when shots ring out. Walking a baby in a stroller when shots ring out. Sleeping on a couch when shots ring out. How can you dream when life is so nightmarish?

Robert Johnson–First African-American billionaire

I look at my girls play in the yard, happy and oblivious. They smile for real. They laugh for real. They blow bubbles that pop on green, manicured lawns. They ride scooters with their friends up and down the block. They jump rope, turn cartwheels, and I know that they dream. M. sees the Disney glamour of princesses and knows that one day she will be glamorous too. She visits school with me, watches me work, and she sees kids learning, raising hands to enthusiastically answer questions. She knows that being a teacher herself is an option. She knows that my husband and I will do everything we can to ensure that if that’s what she wants to do, she will have the opportunities to do it. I watch D. imagine, sitting in a laundry basket with the broom in hand, a boat with an oar. She has a band-aid on her face, an eye patch, as she searches the horizon for  thieves trying to take her gold. She springs from the basket and jumps onto the couch and asks, “Is that north?”

“No,” I reply, “that’s west.”

“Then we’re heading west,” she asserts, falling hard to the floor to reposition her boat.

I watch my girls, and I’m grateful that they have lives where dreaming big is the norm. They’re not interrupted with violence, with neglect, with turmoil, with oppression. They can learn without feeling the futility of it all. They can exist without feeling hunger, or shame, or pain. And it makes me proud. I’ve been able to provide this for them.

But when I turn on the news and see another baby killed, another mother stripped of her child, another potential success story lost, I wonder if I am doing all I can to help more babies dream. And I feel guilty. I’m okay with that guilt because I know how hard it is to feel genuine guilt without trying to create change, make up for it, in some way. I just can’t do right by the ones I gave birth to. That just doesn’t seem fair. Not when so many aren’t even allowed to dream. And if it’s not my responsibility to help those who have no one, nothing else, whose responsibility is it?

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